This paper investigates a new method for transient simulation of flow through a wind turbine using an actuator technique. The aim, in the context of wind turbine wake simulation, is to develop an alternative to the widely used actuator disc model with an increased resolution and range of applications, for the same or less computational expense. In this new model, the actuator sector method, forces applied to the fluid are distributed azimuthally to maintain a continuous flow solution for increased time-step intervals compared with the actuator line method. Actuator sector results are presented in comparison with actuator disc and actuator line models initially for a non-dimensionalized turbine in laminar onset flow. Subsequent results are presented for a turbine operating in a turbulent atmospheric boundary layer. Results show significant increases in flow fidelity compared with actuator disc model results; this includes the resolution of diametric variation in rotor loading caused by horizontal or vertical wind shear and the helical vortex system shed from the turbine blade tips. Significant reductions in computational processing time were achieved with wake velocities and turbulence statistics comparable with actuator line model results. The actuator sector method offers an improved alternative to applications employing conventional actuator disc models, with little or no additional computational cost. This technique in conjunction with a Cartesian mesh-based parallel flow solver leads to efficient simulation of turbines in atmospheric boundary layer flows. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.